The Power of Listening

Do you see yourself as a great communicator? Do you know a great communicator? Often when we think of being an effective communicator, we think of one’s ability to speak well. We tend to admire those who have a powerful command of the language, a broad vocabulary and the ability to persuade. We also tend to think highly of those who have mastered the art of oratory. It is no wonder. Surveys reveal that most of us would prefer death to speech making in public. Speaking well is important.

However, I am proposing that one of the most useful characteristics of a great communicator is their ability to listen. Listening well is vital if we are to truly be an effective communicator. While we consciously admire a great speaker, unconsciously, many of us tend to appreciate those with a keen ability to listen to us. These are the people in our lives who become our trusted friends and respected colleagues.

There is power in listening. Listening is vital to understanding. I believe that in order to survive in the world, humans need to be heard. Every human being has a deep desire to be heard and to believe that other people care enough to listen. We wanted it when we were younger. We want it now and we will want it in the future when we are old and gray. Research shows that children who unable to speak find non-verbal ways to gain the attention of their caregivers in an attempt to be understood. Feeling like one is heard is often correlated with feeling cared for.

I conduct workshops on improving relationships through effective communication. In these workshops, participants often complain that the other person won’t listen to them. In most cases, participants say that the other person does not listen because they are “just stubborn.” In challenging conversations, many times the other person is not listening because they don’t feel heard. If this is the problem, one way to eliminate it is to help them to feel heard.

Take the time and make your best effort to listen to what they are saying and how they are feeling. Pay particular attention to feelings that are important to them, things of which they are proud, fears, frustrations, etc. Make certain you acknowledge those feelings.

In a previous article, I noted that one way to improve the quality of your relationships is to improve the quality of your communication. The best way to improve your communication is to perk up the quality of your listening. This is not an easy task to master. Especially when there are so many barriers and roadblocks.

Assumptions also get in the way. Assumptions are ideas or statements we take for granted without proof. They are mental shortcuts that allow us to better understand our world. Consider the phrase, women are weak. Many women are physically weaker than men. Plus, the tendency toward open emotions may appear as a weakness to some. Assumptions are based in truth. This makes an assumption about weakness in women seem as though it is a fact. Hence, we assign the descriptor, weak, to all women and treat the statement, “women are weak,” as truth. Because these assumptions are happening in our heads, they usually go unnoticed, untested and are rarely considered topics of discussion. We make assumptions about all sorts of things.

We assume that we all have the same information. If you ever remember yourself saying, everyone knows __________, be careful. We each have different information based on our history and our background. We have been exposed to different situations. Even when we are exposed to the same information, we may interpret it differently based on our interests and needs. Information and interpretation form the basis for our beliefs, viewpoints and opinions.

In intimate and close relationships with spouses, partners and children, it is easy to think that you have heard it all before – that you know what they think. Consider that you don’t already know what they are going to say. Listen with an interest in learning.

Distractions can derail one’s ability to listen and the speaker’s sense of feeling heard and understood. Stop whatever you are doing and provide your undivided attention. If this is not possible at the time, be honest. If you don’t have time, don’t try to fake it. Don’t you know when others aren’t fully listening? So will they. Schedule an alternate time as you would for a valued client. Most people would rather have five minutes of your undivided attention than two hours when you are distracted.

Sometimes our feelings block our ears. Emotion triggers can stop us from hearing. It is hard enough to get it right when we are listening to simple instructions or conversations that are not emotionally charged. However, when there are hot button issues or opposing viewpoints, it becomes more and more difficult to hear what the other person is saying. In conversations with teens and youngsters about sex or drugs, feelings of worry, anger or anxiety can make it difficult to listen. Notice your feelings and make a conscious effort not to interrupt with your own advice, criticism, solutions or sermons. Problem solving can come later. Feelings that are unexpressed can ruin the conversation.

It is hard to listen when something is said that appears to attack our very identity. It is then that our self –image is at stake. If I believe that I am a good person and you are saying something that implies that I am not, my tendency is to defend myself. At this point, I am not focusing on what is being said, I am listening to my own internal dialogue. If my mother said that I shouldn’t give the children so much candy, I might misinterpret the content of the message and her intentions toward me. I could easily interpret it as a implication that I am not a good mother.

To listen does not mean you agree. You can still retain your own opinion or viewpoint. When you listen, you are telling the other person that you are trying to understand from their point of view.

In driving solid relationships, listening is where the rubber meets the road. It is the best way to get beyond the roadblocks.

Keys to Success for Difficult Conversations

1. Consider your purpose for the conversation. Blame, attribution and judgment will only evoke defensiveness in the person with whom you want to communicate. Authenticity is the key.

2. Keep in mind that your assumption is only a hypothesis. I guessed that my mother thought I was not being a good mother when I allowed my children to eat candy. Confirm your understanding by saying, “This is my assumption __________________. Is that right? How do you see it?” Once you and your partner have confirmed you are communicating with the same assumptions, the conversation can progress.

3. Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. This requires listening with empathy. Try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view. Listen for words and feelings. Try to understand what the speaker might be feeling. Paraphrase what the speaker has said using the phrase, “If I heard you correctly, you said…” Then confirm your understanding until he or she agrees that you have heard them: “Did I get it right?”

4. In difficult conversations, ask the speaker to explain the assumptions on which his or her opinion/viewpoint was built. “Help me understand how you arrived at your opinion, position or viewpoint?”

5. Ask the other person to explain how they might things differently from you.

6. When you reach an impasse, go back to your listening skills seeking to understand.

If you plan to improve your relationships, consider the barriers and work to improve your listening skills with the people in your life who matter most.

Send your comments or questions to communication@cathyharris.com

Cathy Harris’ expertise lies in cultivating people connections. She is a professional keynote speaker, trainer, consultant and author who specializes in helping people make the critical connections that increase their productivity and profits.